The formula for a successful James Bond film is tricky. Too serious, too lighthearted, too romantic, too distant, too many people dressed as clowns: all problems the franchise has faced before.
Now we may have run into a new one: too artsy. Sam Mendes, the Academy Award winning director of American Beauty and a half dozen other explorations of the horror of American life, helms the latest Bond excursion, Skyfall. Getting the opportunity to play with a British icon, Mendes delves immediately into doing what he enjoys doing: peeling away the paint to find the rot underneath.
With the cliches of the franchise firmly in place, Mendes decides to throw the accumulated mess against each other and find where the pieces fall when push comes to shove.
What’s interesting about Skyfall is that it is interesting. Compared to the rather rote morals contained in the other post-Cold War Bond films, like, say, Quantum of Solace (“Evil corporations steal our water for profit”), Tomorrow Never Dies (“Evil corporations start wars for profit”), or Die Another Day (“Evil corporations put Madonna in the movie for profit”), Skyfall is a rather rich tapestry, reflexively examining both the state of Britain, the shambles of the War on Terror, and the Bond franchise itself.
Let’s go down that list, shall we?
First is the nation herself. London is a big part of Skyfall as is Scotland and assorted rainy weather conditions. It’s not a nice place, and the film’s proper plot kicks off with an egregious security breach that puts hundred of agents at risk and forces MI6 literally underground. This sets them in a secure bunker that hasn’t been used since Churchill was four sheets to the wind, and the dilapidated remnants of Britain’s last great stand entomb the agency.
The locations that Bond travel to match this sentiment that the best days of the British Empire are far behind it. As it was originally supposed to open in India, a former British colony, the destruction that Craig reeks in the pursuit of a stolen NATO drive would have had a more symbolic reading that the careless chase that instead takes him through Istanbul. His other trips that take him to the remnants of Imperial Japan and the booming mecca of Shanghai, China, reflections of his nation’s past and present.
Skyfall is about the trauma that happens at the end of empire. The villain’s history is tied into this too: at the handover of Hong Kong, M sacrificed Silva to the Chinese after his gusto made him a target. The Chinese tortured Silva, and Silva, unable to commit suicide, rots from the inside out. He’s a piece of the last great asset of the empire, and another piece that’s become an enemy.
That brings us to the War on Terror, which was in the prime of its reach back when Casino Royale emerged and now seems old and tired. M, in a hearing about how royally she messed things up, contends that their enemies are no longer defined by maps. The Western world is worn out and yearns for the obvious enemies again.
This is explicitly quantified by a particularly impressive subway disaster that should take the viewers memories back to the 2005 London Tube Bombings. What’s interesting is how the film presents this– as a distraction. It’s malicious and cruel, but simply a smokescreen for the larger conflict of personalities at play. Once again, we’re the victims of our government’s mistakes.
(Side note: compare how the parallels here work as opposed to how The Avengers riffs on 9/11. In Skyfall, the attack is incidental, while in The Avengers its the climactic battle, and only occurs because an egotistical battle of personalities and ignorance allow a catastrophic intelligence failure. Interesting, huh?)
Speaking of personalities, duality also figures into the films interpretations. Bond, often lost in his own reflection, with mirrors and windows surrounding him. This is finally exemplified in Silva, an MI6 who shares Bond’s unhealthy mommy issues with M. In fact, Silva’s looks– a rather remarkably jarring blonde wig that conceals the sickness underneath– look like a bloated version of Bond’s own exterior. Bond is fighting his own insecurity about who he is in the world, and how he’s to be a tool for a company that values his life so little.
That takes me to our third point. This isn’t the first time that Bond has commented on its own pop culture relevance before, as the opening to GoldenEye has Dame Dench herself wave and point at Bond and call him a relic. Sam at Duke & The Movies (a very good blog) points out how Q admonishes 007 as an outmoded commodity, and there are plenty of other nice nods to the difficulties in getting Bond back into action this time around.
Who is James Bond, really? Seducer, cold blooded killer? Monster or man? These questions are what makes him such a fascinating enigma, and Mendes and company try and push the question as far back as it can go.
Simon over at Screen Insight (another good blog) goes into the film’s pedigree for a bit but then talks about how the film is essentially the destruction and rebuilding of Bond. After a shaky career opener for Craig’s Bond in Casino Royale and, again, whatever the hell Quantum of Solace was supposed to be, this film insists and leads us back to James Bond as we first found him in Dr. No. He spends act three losing everything he has left that means anything to him– his home and his substitute mother– and has found that, deep down, he really just wants to wear a nice suit and shoot at people. That’s what he’s good at.
Unfortunately, an interesting movie, doesn’t always make for an entertaining one, and there are times when the plot grinds for bad CGI or explosions that simply drone on. While it’s easily the most fun in the Daniel Craig James Bond series, the film still lurches, and some of the CGI is laughable. I’ve heard the end of the film compared to Straw Dogs but is much more akin to the Home Alone series, right down to the exploding light bulbs and escape to the tree house.
But there are so many interesting things going on here. Skyfall is a gorgeous flick. I hate to say that it may be an entry more fun to think about than to watch. Craig’s Bond is finally gelling, and, like we’ve already said three times before, maybe the next one will be something really special.
(James Bond, James Bond, James Bond, James Bond, James Bond, 007)
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